MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government summoned China's top envoy in Manila on Tuesday to protest what it said was the firing of a water cannon by a Chinese government vessel to drive away Filipino fishermen from a hotly disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said the protest was handed to Beijing's charge d'affairs over the Jan. 27 incident at Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground claimed by China and the Philippines. China ignored the protest and called its sovereignty there "indisputable."
China has controlled the shoal since Philippine vessels backed off from a tense standoff there in 2012. Chinese coast guard and surveillance ships have guarded the territory and chased away Filipino fishermen if they ventured close. The Philippines asked an international tribunal last year to declare China's seizure of the shoal and seven other South China Sea reefs illegal.
Filipino fish trader Macario Forones said Chinese coast guard personnel used crude oil-laden waste water while blowing their ship's horn and yelling "Go away, go away" at his fishermen. One or two other Philippine fishing boats were hit by the waste water, he said.
"The water smelled of oil and smeared the side of my fishing boat," Forones told The Associated Press by telephone from western Zambales province. "But my fishermen did not really leave the area. We've spent so much money to travel there and they basically ignored the Chinese."
The Chinese coast guard vessel with bow No. 3063 used its water cannon for several minutes and sounded its horn to drive away 2 of 14 Filipino fishing boats, Hernandez told a news conference.
"It is a strong protest against the Chinese for the harassment," Hernandez said of the diplomatic action, adding that China's massive territorial claim in the South China Sea was "excessive, expansive and illegal."
"These actions, these incidents surely escalate the tension in the area and this further threatens the peace and security and stability in the region," he said.
China repeated that it "has indisputable sovereignty over South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, Huangyan Island included," using the Chinese name of Scarborough. It did not confirm nor deny the water cannon attack but said Chinese government vessels were patrolling the Scarborough area regularly.
"The Chinese side does not accept the so-called 'protest' by the Philippine side," Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua said in a statement.
President Benigno Aquino III said his government will ask Beijing if this was an isolated incident or a new Chinese way of engaging rival nations in the disputed waters.
Military chief of staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista told reporters Monday that Philippine forces adhere to a no-confrontation policy in the disputed areas but would defend the country and its people if they are threatened.
The Philippine military said it would not retaliate.
"Although it is an aggressive act, it does not merit a military response," military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said. "We encourage our fishermen to continue with their normal lives. We cannot let an aggressor stop our way of life, especially livelihood."
China, the Philippines and four other governments have been disputing ownership of resource-rich South China Sea territories for years. Many fear the disputes could set off a major armed conflict.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.